Want to avoid culture wars at work? You need a healthy 'debate culture.'

From their first day, employees at Appian are encouraged to disagree with anyone at the company — including the CEO. Here’s how it works.

​Appian co-founder and CEO Matt Calkins

Appian co-founder and CEO Matt Calkins wants his employees to disagree with him.

Photo: Appian

Matt Calkins often hears that he’s polite, even deferential. But as CEO of Appian, he tells employees to challenge each other — especially their bosses — early and often.

“I love arguments. I love ideas clashing,” Calkins said. “I regard it as a personal compliment when someone respectfully dissents.”

This culture originated with Calkins and his three co-founders, two of whom were champion student debaters before founding the cloud computing company in 1999. Today, Calkins said he still greets new employees with an invitation to express disagreement with anyone at any level of the company — including himself.

“If you disagree with somebody, especially your boss, you’re doing them a favor,” Calkins said. “You’re helping them to make their idea better. Whatever it is you just disagreed with is going to get better because you challenged it.”

Disagreement also communicates respect, Calkins said: It shows the receiver that you see them as someone who can handle criticism without getting upset.

How to promote healthy debate

This culture doesn’t work everywhere. It works at Appian, Calkins said, because of two prerequisites: respect and “an ability to resolve the debate.”

“I’ve seen companies that thought they were a debate culture, but where people didn’t actually feel like they had the standing to speak up,” Calkins said. “That’s not a debate culture. Everyone has to feel empowered.”

One way to reinforce that is praising dissent publicly, Calkins said. That’s especially true with high-level executives, who in Calkins’ experience are more afraid to challenge their superiors.

Calkins’ co-founders are still “positively ferocious” in debates. They “like to disagree with me just to make the point that they still can,” Calkins said. At one point, a debate among the executive team about which new market to get into lasted 20 hours over the course of two days in a hotel boardroom. That wasn’t normal, but neither is changing a company’s business model, which was ultimately at stake.

“Sometimes, ideas get shot down gratuitously,” Calkins said of his co-founders. “However, where we try to keep it all in bounds, I find it all constructive. I don’t think we have crazy meetings.”

‘Choose a decisioner’

A collaborative, dissent-based discussion is “like a game of catch,” Calkins said. You catch the idea, then you process and return it before throwing it back. And when you throw it back, you include your disagreement.

Catch is a “fairly disciplined activity,” Calkins said — more of a Q&A than a brawl.

“It’s not like everyone is speaking at once. It’s not like we can never agree on anything,” Calkins said. “Nobody else should get involved in that [one-to-one exchange] until that dialogue is resolved, and then someone else can become the questioner.”

Calkins has another principle for meeting management: “The number of people involved plus the breadth of the conversation, topic-wise, must equal a constant.” In other words, larger meetings need a tighter focus.

And in order to resolve debate, Appian doesn’t divert decision-making to committees.

“It’s always a person. We choose a decisioner, and they make the decision,” Calkins said. “The debate happens until we make a decision, and then we rally. That’s an essential component as well: Otherwise we’d stay a debate society forever.”

One thing Calkins hasn’t figured out: how to make dissent work virtually. The pandemic and remote work have suppressed some of Appian’s debate culture, he said.

“Unfortunately, Zoom is a dampener on really good debate,” Calkins said. “If you really want a debate, that’s a high-bandwidth experience. Ideally, you’ve got a whiteboard. Ideally, you can look at them and you can see how they’re reacting.”

It may come as no surprise that while Appian allows for remote work, Calkins is in the office five days a week.

Please argue — but not about politics

Calkins discourages political debates at work, calling U.S. politics “polarized and toxic,” and said lately he’s been particularly worried about “the radioactive nature of political debates.”

“In the company, it’s mostly demoralizing when American political debates come up, so I try to minimize them,” Calkins said. “We’re a business, so we’ve been doing business things. When we debate, we debate about our business things.”

Even in an age when tech workers increasingly expect their employers to engage in — or at least allow — social activism, it’s not unusual for big-company leaders to ask them to tone down the politics at work.

In the last two months, Meta has told employees not to post about abortion on the company’s Workplace tool because of the topic’s potential to “leave people feeling targeted based on their gender or religion,” and Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong has spoken about the internal fractures that led up to his 2020 declaration that Coinbase would avoid social activism that could be both distracting and divisive.

Kraken, a Coinbase rival, has stopped short of banning office political discussions, but told employees last month that they should be “thick skinned” at work and expect some people to be offended by each other’s ideas. (Some employees have reportedly left over CEO Jesse Powell’s comments about gender and race.)

Calkins credits Appian’s culture of respectful dissent with allowing the company to avoid some of the more fractious political debates.

“We had this long-standing commitment to respect and we’ve been able to lean on it in polarized times as our guiding principle,” Calkins said. “These are inextricably linked.”


Upstart has a new plan to sell Wall Street on its loans

The AI-powered lender will hold some loans on its balance sheet as it seeks partners for long-term capital.

Despite the current struggles, Upstart views the marketplace model as the best way to write to keep its loan business growing.

Photo: Upstart

After a revenue drop its CEO called “unacceptable,” the leadership at fintech lender Upstart is making a bet on the strength of its ability to underwrite loans with AI.

The San Mateo company is planning to leave some loans on its balance sheet that investors do not want to buy, as concerns about the economy shift Wall Street away from backing riskier consumer debt. Rather than pull back on its lending in response, the company said it will hold some loans as it seeks longer-term capital partners.

Keep Reading Show less
Ryan Deffenbaugh
Ryan Deffenbaugh is a reporter at Protocol focused on fintech. Before joining Protocol, he reported on New York's technology industry for Crain's New York Business. He is based in New York and can be reached at
Sponsored Content

How cybercrime is going small time

Blockbuster hacks are no longer the norm – causing problems for companies trying to track down small-scale crime

Cybercrime is often thought of on a relatively large scale. Massive breaches lead to painful financial losses, bankrupting companies and causing untold embarrassment, splashed across the front pages of news websites worldwide. That’s unsurprising: cyber events typically cost businesses around $200,000, according to cybersecurity firm the Cyentia Institute. One in 10 of those victims suffer losses of more than $20 million, with some reaching $100 million or more.

That’s big money – but there’s plenty of loot out there for cybercriminals willing to aim lower. In 2021, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received 847,376 complaints – reports by cybercrime victims – totaling losses of $6.9 billion. Averaged out, each victim lost $8,143.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.


Does your boss sound a little funny? It might be an audio deepfake

Voice deepfake attacks against enterprises, often aimed at tricking corporate employees into transferring money to the attackers, are on the rise. And at least in some cases, they’re succeeding.

Audio deepfakes are a new spin on the impersonation tactics that have long been used in social engineering and phishing attacks, but most people aren’t trained to disbelieve their ears.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

As a cyberattack investigator, Nick Giacopuzzi’s work now includes responding to growing attacks against businesses that involve deepfaked voices — and has ultimately left him convinced that in today's world, "we need to question everything."

In particular, Giacopuzzi has investigated multiple incidents where an attacker deployed fabricated audio, created with the help of AI, that purported to be an executive or a manager at a company. You can guess how it went: The fake boss asked an employee to urgently transfer funds. And in some cases, it’s worked, he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at


Binance’s co-founder could remake its crypto deal-making

Yi He is overseeing a $7.5 billion portfolio, with more investments to come, making her one of the most powerful investors in the industry.

Binance co-founder Yi He will oversee $7.5 billion in assets.

Photo: Binance

Binance co-founder Yi He isn’t as well known as the crypto giant’s colorful and controversial CEO, Changpeng “CZ” Zhao.

That could soon change. The 35-year-old executive is taking on a new, higher-profile role at the world’s largest crypto exchange as head of Binance Labs, the company’s venture capital arm. With $7.5 billion in assets to oversee, that instantly makes her one of the most powerful VC investors in crypto.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.


Trump ordered social media visa screening. Biden's defending it.

The Knight First Amendment Institute just lost a battle to force the Biden administration to provide a report on the collection of social media handles from millions of visa applicants every year.

Visa applicants have to give up any of their social media handles from the past five years.

Photo: belterz/Getty Images

Would you feel comfortable if a U.S. immigration official reviewed all that you post on Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, Twitter or even YouTube? Would it change what you decide to post or whom you talk to online? Perhaps you’ve said something critical of the U.S. government. Perhaps you’ve jokingly threatened to whack someone.

If you’ve applied for a U.S. visa, there’s a chance your online missives have been subjected to this kind of scrutiny, all in the name of keeping America safe. But three years after the Trump administration ordered enhanced vetting of visa applications, the Biden White House has not only continued the program, but is defending it — despite refusing to say if it’s had any impact.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email:, where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Latest Stories